In 1968, during an era defined by social turmoil and unrest, eight boys sought clarity in the midst of confusion, under the tutelage of Dr. Jack Zorn. They began studying the Bible and speaking at area churches. This small group became a light to shine through the darkness, growing into what it is known as today, Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes (L2L).
Zorn passed away on August 12, 2021 at the age of 86, six months after he was awarded Faulkner University’s Alumnus of the Year Award.
“One could easily argue there is no other Faulkner graduate who has made more of an impact in the Kingdom of God than Dr. Jack Zorn,” said Faulkner University President Mike Williams. “His influence extends nationally and internationally. Through his work on the Board of Trustees, his fingerprints are all over Faulkner. We mourn his loss and celebrate his victory in Jesus.”
Zorn was a dreamer. He knew, even in those early years, his mission was to grow L2L into what it is today. His vision has become a household name among many Christian families who are raising their children to be responsible, Christ-like citizens, and encouraging them to be a difference in their churches and communities. More than five decades later, over a quarter million children have been helped by L2L. In recent years, over 20,000 youths have showcased their work at the annual convention, held simultaneously in many states.
Zorn was the 2021 recipient of the Faulkner University Alumnus of the Year Award because of his lifetime of service dedicated to the Lord’s work, his ingenuity and his love for young people. His daughter, Rhonda Fernandez, accepted the award on her father’s behalf at the Faulkner University Alumni Honors Luncheon on February 19. He was unable to attend in person due to illness.
“Right on the plaque, it says ‘In recognition of a lifetime of Christian service,’” said Faulkner University Alumni Officer Robin Bradford. “We look at what they were like as students at Alabama Christian College or Faulkner University, how they stood out as well as what they have done since leaving school. We look at what kind of leaders they have been and what they have done to have an influence on people.”
“He is truly a visionary,” said Faulkner University Alumni Director Joey Wiginton. “When you talk to him, you know he’s looking five, ten years down the road. It’s just the kind of man he is. It’s that mindset that enabled L2L to grow into what it is today. All five of my children have gone through L2L and every one of them was blessed by Jack and L2L.”
Little did Zorn know just how many lives L2L would influence. When he was a young boy sharing a bed with his three siblings, he looked up at the sky through the rusted hole in his family’s tin roof, dreaming of a different life.
Born with a speech impediment, Zorn was ridiculed for doing poorly in school and dropped out of the 10th grade to work in the fields. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother kept the family together while doing her best to instill strong Christian values into her children.
At the age of 17, Zorn left home and hitchhiked to Mt. Dora where he worked 80 hours a week in the orange fields and eventually found work at a concrete plant.
A year later, a plant manager invited Zorn to attend a nightly gospel meeting. The meeting changed his life. He went forward on the final night and was baptized into Christ.
“My father was overwhelmed with the feeling of being saved and was on fire for God,” said Zorn’s daughter, Rhonda Fernandez. “Soon he was studying the Bible every spare minute he had and writing down questions. He wanted to learn how to convert his family.”
He began studying God’s Word and was soon asked to speak at the local youth and adult classes at church. A student from Alabama Christian College (ACC), now called Faulkner University, encouraged him to come to college, where Zorn could also find the help to complete his high school education.
With $30 and two bags containing all his worldly possessions, Zorn moved to ACC and began working his way through school. Zorn had a full load of classes and a full-time work-study job doing campus maintenance. He cleaned the post office part-time at night and preached on the weekends.
“This Christian school was willing to take a chance on an academically ill-prepared, broke farm boy,” Fernandez said. “He was on fire to spread the gospel but knew he needed education. He is forever grateful to ACC/Faulkner for making every exception in the book, accepting him as is, just as the Lord meets us where we are.”
Without any grants or scholarships, Zorn earned his GED, a bachelor of arts degree from ACC, a master’s degree from Harding Graduate School and a Doctorate of Religious Education from the International Bible Institute and Seminary. Zorn also holds an honorary doctorate degree from Harding University.
It was in 1956 at ACC when Zorn met the love of his life, Sarah Frances Johnson. Frances, working as a student assistant in the business office, was asked to assist Zorn on his first day. Fernandez said it was love at first sight for her parents. They were married less than a year later.
Their first daughter, Resa, was born while they were working as dorm parents. After graduating, Zorn moved his family to Pensacola, Florida to preach. After some time, he was approached to do mission work in Blakely, Georgia where he started a church surrounded by peanut farms. After building the church and parsonage, his congregation grew and he began working with the youth through after-school Bible studies.
Zorn was later asked to preach full-time at a church in Warner Robins, Georgia. By then, Zorn and his family had grown to include three daughters. It was the early ‘60s and Zorn was faced with a volatile social climate. It was a time when God and family values were being attacked.
Although Zorn was hired as the pulpit minister, he turned his focus to the community’s youth and he asked God for guidance.
“He thought about his own experiences as a stuttering child, without mentors or role models until he became a Christian,” Fernandez said. “He said leaders are not born, they are developed. He knew education and training were key and what young people desperately needed were direction and affirmation for doing good. He said two things no one could ever take from him are his love for God and his education. That’s when he knew how to help inspire the youth at Warner Robins and help grow the church.”
Thus, Lads to Leaders (L2L) was born.
Zorn recruited eight boys from the Warner Robins church and formed them into a team. They studied on Friday evenings and Saturday and spoke in classes on Sundays. They began speaking at other churches, organizations and school assemblies giving lessons on what it meant to be a responsible citizen and outlined the differences of an atheistic America versus an America built on education, Biblical principles and the traditional family.
Their reputation spread and Zorn and his team were invited to speak for then Governor Jimmy Carter’s prayer breakfast in Atlanta for more than a thousand businessmen. His student speakers were seated at the head table and wore new suits donated by a lady at their church. They were so well received, their images were splashed across the front page of the paper the next day.
Zorn would continue preaching full time for 21 years, serving local congregations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. He would also teach at ACC/Faulkner and serve as the director of the American Studies Center, but he remained invested in L2L.
Bruce Lyon is just one of the many men and women who have been touched by L2L over the years. Lyon, a clinical exercise specialist and personal trainer in Nashville, Tennessee, has owned his own business for 25 years.
In 1978, 17-year old Lyon travelled to the Louisiana Superdome for a L2L convention with the West Huntsville Church of Christ. He won first place for his speech and met Zorn, who later invited him to be a part of his national speaking team for an event in Rocky Mountain National Park, Denver, Colorado. Several years later, Zorn would make him another offer.
After Lyon completed his freshman year of college at the University of Alabama, hewas preaching at West Huntsville when Zorn happened to be in the audience.
“ As we talked afterwards he found out that I was planning to transfer to David Lipscomb College,” Lyon said. “Faulkner University had just began classes, so he asked if I could drive to Montgomery and deliver my speech at chapel.”
After his speech, Zorn took Lyon to the Admissions Office where he was offered a full scholarship in return for serving as Zorn’s assistant at the George S. Benson Citizenship Center. Lyon agreed.
“In addition to a free year of college, Dr. Zorn promised that I would speak to over 30,000 high school students that year, as well as share a podium with at least three state governors. He followed through on all his promises. What an unbelievable learning experience to travel thousands of miles with Jack Zorn and be able to learn so many quality and godly lessons,” Lyon said.
Zorn knew L2L would grow the church more than anything else he could do and he dreamed of growing the program. It was a dream blessed by God, Zorn said and he’s grateful for the unyielding support of his wife, who he misses deeply.
“Had Frances not shared my vision allowing us to be a team working in unison, things would have been very different,” Zorn said. “I felt I was proceeding with a dream blessed by God and God’s hand was in it. I just feel deep in my core this was how I could be used to reach the most people for God. I am thankful Frances felt the same conviction.”
Zorn and Frances lived in Montgomery, near the L2L headquarters for over 30 years until health issues made retirement necessary.
After retirement, they moved to Sylacauga where Frances had grown up. Frances shared before her death in July 2017, those years spent in her hometown where she and Zorn spent every day together were the best years of her life. At the time the Alumni of the Year award was given, Zorn, 85, was living with his daughter Rhonda and her husband Halo Fernandez in the Orlando, Florida area.
“He was so humbled when we told him of this honor to be recognized as Faulkner University’s Alumni of the Year,” Fernandez said. “He could barely speak and said how amazing it was to be remembered and how much he loved Faulkner University. Jack extends his prayers for all affected by the pandemic and prays for Faulkner and its leadership on a regular basis. May God continue to bless this school.”